Pre-departure

I’m going to be in Rwanda in less than 24 hours.

I’ll be there for three weeks, studying journalism and the media before, during and after the 1994 genocide. I’ll live  in a house with fifteen Carleton students, taking day trips to massacre sites and newsrooms, and pouring over the archives at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.

It’s been a dream months in the making (years, if I really want to get nostalgic about my childhood and the formation of my interests), but now that I’m finally at the edge of it all, I admit, I’m feeling a tug of hesitation.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel more than your average 20 year old, logging almost 15 countries and blogging from multiple continents. I’ve never felt nervous or stressed out before another trip like I have before this one.

It’s a combination of pressures. I’ve invested a significant amount of time and money into making it to Kigali and I’ve never been to the continent before, but my worries extend beyond practicalities.

Mostly, I’ve been preoccupied with the course’s subject matter,  and my uncertainty about how to interact with the world in a meaningful way. Genocide is no easy topic. Nor are freedom of expression or the politics surrounding it all.

Years of studying journalism and human rights has made me wary about treating people and a country as merely sources of quotes or subjects of photos. Three years ago I travelled to India on a volunteer service trip, but since then, my perspectives on the world and travel have changed. I want to see the world in a way that will maximize learning and growth but minimize harm.

I don’t want to be a tourist caricature: the North American girl who goes to Africa to save orphaned babies and get a new adorable profile picture; the judgemental Westerner, imposing my values and expectations on a society that I will know only briefly, and probably never fully, understand.

All these thoughts and doubts have led to a dizzying past 24 hours. I packed in a frenzy, convinced I was forgetting something. When my boyfriend and I took a break to go for dinner, he had to convince me that I hadn’t misread my departure time and tell me to calm down and enjoy my noodles.

This morning I just had one more task on my to-do list: pick up a universal power adapter. My boyfriend drove me to an electronic store in downtown Ottawa in search of this final item.

The employee that helped me was tall and friendly, with a wide smile. I’d popped by the store on Monday to pick up some other supplies and he was the first person I’d seen. I’d told him I was going to Kigali and he told me that he’d been to the city in 2010…back when he was working as a journalist in Africa. We didn’t have much time to chat, but I said I’d be back.

Today, I found him again, standing by the wall of power adapters. He helped me find what I needed and as I stood at the cash register, paying, I asked him about Kigali, his former career, and how he ended up working at at electronics store in Ottawa.

He told me that he’d travelled all over Africa and met many people.

“Many heads of state,” he said, “Zuma, Gaddafi…”

“Kagame?” I asked, naming the Rwandan president.

“Oh yes, Kagame two times.”

He told me that he’s studying at Carleton now. I asked if he’s also in the journalism program. No, he told me, being a journalist is too dangerous, at least where he’s from. He wants to get out of it now, do something different.

His words were a wake up call, a face to pair with the issues listed in our course outline, and to put 24 hours of worry into perspective. I scribbled my email down on a page in my notebook, ripped it out and handed it to him, encouraging him to keep in touch.

He accepted the paper and smiled. “You’re going to love it,” he told me.

I think he’s right.

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